Canals, tenements, Glasgow: I smell a rat

ALSO SHOWING: Ratcatcher (15) Lynne Ramsay; 93 mins The Tichborne Claimant (PG) David Yates; 98 mins Kes (PG) Ken Loach; 113 mins

Lynne Ramsay's debut feature is set during the mid-1970s Glasgow bin-man strike. Twelve-year-old James (William Eadie) and his family live in a clapped-out tenement block. Outside, the rubbish piles up, the sun shines, and the rats breed. The children's favourite place is the local canal. One day James plays a part in the accidental drowning of a neighbour's son, and spends the rest of the film taking himself hostage with quiet guilt.

Ratcatcher moves slowly, forever stopping off to sit intimate Polaroids in front of us. These Polaroids push buttons to suggest this is a Good British Film; but actually, Ratcatcher is neither good nor original. It co-opts so masterfully that one might easily be taken in, but co-opting is all the film does.

Look at the poster. It is a black-and-white still of Eadie's profile. His cheek and brow are covered in bits of rough grass, like needles laid out on the skin, balancing on the tiny hairs. Again, it all screams Good British Film. But as Godard said, it's not a just image, it's just an image, and the film is full of them. Here's James tenderly combing nits out of a friend's hair, or rushing across a field of corn, thin legs necessarily splayed to protect the knees. Here's Dad's shaving cut, flickering with a scrap of loo roll. These are moments that stick; of course they are. But what are they really doing? What do they add up to?

It's as though Ramsay knows that a film cannot fail with these images, knows that our responses are virtually embossed, and has assumed our suggestibility has no limits. These images look sincere, look felt, look like something urgently communicated; and yet each of them is strained beyond its natural capacity because it is only there for the hell of it.

If Ramsay has any genius, it is in pretending that she just had to do it, like she spotted the opportunity through her lens and her mouth watered. But actually, every second is calculated. The shaving cut is a good example. We're in the kitchen, watching the kids eating their bad-for-you breakfast, and then suddenly we're up against Dad's jaw. Ah! poor Dad. Poor old pissed dad. He was always cutting himself. And then we're off again. Having learnt nothing.

Actually, Dad is one of the few good things in this film. He is played by Tommy Flanagan, who is usually cast as somebody's henchman because of the peculiar scar that stretches across his cheeks. You really do wonder how he got it. Above it, there's Flanagan's fantastic skull, and his clear, worn-out eyes taking an interest in everything, letting his emotions work slower than his brain. But even Flanagan cannot stop Ratcatcher from being a maddening and hugely cynical piece of work.

The Tichborne Claimant tells the true story of one of the richest families in Victorian England, who lose their heir in the seas around the Cape. But is Lord Tich really dead? Did he, in fact, take a bump to the head, come to in Wagga Wagga, Australia and set himself up as a butcher called Thomas Castro, having forgotten his previous life? Years later, Ben Bogle (John Kani), the family's manservant, goes on a scouting mission in the Outback, spots Castro (Robert Pugh, superb) and ships him back to England. But the family are not happy. This oaf, our Roger? Not likely! Let's feed him to the legal lions, headed by Sir John Gielgud.

These Victorian court-cases always have such terrific titles. If the Titchborne Claimant wasn't for real, someone might have made it up. (How about the Petticandied Plaintiff? Just a suggestion.) The Tichborne Claimant is precisely the kind of film the BBC might make for Boxing Day. It's a gorgeously ludicrous and urbane story told in a very just-reach-for- another-mint-centre kind of way, and stars all of British Equity.

It's particularly lovely to see Robert Hardy, who plays a landed neighbour. I was the only one at school who fancied Siegfried Farnon over Tristan in All Creatures Great and Small. The way he ate a slice of fruit cake as though it might be his last was unbelievably sexual. You always get the impression that Hardy is a peach to work with in a costume drama because he could come up with all the background chat himself ("Good God, a pike! Well I never! Not since Lord Cruelcrumpet rolled backwards into the orangery ..." and so on. Just another suggestion.) You feel he actually speaks like this in real life.

John Gielgud is as, well, there are ever, seeming more and more like Quentin Crisp. Gielgud sits cross-legged better than any other actor in the world - such ballerina thighs. There's something so central, so relevant about Gielgud (however little he might feature in the film), you wind up feeling a bit nervous whenever he' s not on screen. I wonder if it's the same for the cast and crew, relying on his keeping everybody going with stories about how he once played Desdemona astride a barrage balloon. Then he goes home and has a Jammie Dodger in front of the Six O'Clock News, and sighs.

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